Detailed History of Hong Kong

By Dennis Leventhal

Origins & Evolution
On January 26, 1841, the British Navy planted a flag on Hong Kong Island.  Until then, Hong Kong had been virtually an historical irrelevancy.  The nearby mainland and surrounding islands hold some “digs” evincing inhabitants of various Chinese dynasties, such as the Ming, Song, and Han, and even the Neolithic period.  But despite the extensive maritime activity of the Southern Song and early Ming, and the flood of coastal pirates coming out of Ashikaga Japan, “Fragrant Harbor” (the literal translation of “Hong Kong”) apparently had never developed into anything much more than a minor anchorage and careenage for fishermen and smugglers throughout the long course of Chinese imperial history.  However, it did serve as a neutral point of contact with the outside world, and it is that aspect that held a potential subsequently realized for developing East-West relationships.

When the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 added Hong Kong to Britain’s mercantile/colonial network, it became a staging point for trade with the treaty ports of the China coast.  It evolved slowly during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and then exploded into a major entrepot with the post-World War II boom in East Asia, fueled further by the opening of the China trade in the late 1970s.

Jewry in Hong Kong followed a similar evolution.  Jews were among the first settlers in the 1840s, and a Jewish community life began to develop from the mid-1850s.  This early community consisted primarily of Baghdadi commercial pioneers whose families had migrated under the protecting wings of British imperial expansion from the Middle East, through India, and from there on to the China coast and Japan.  The prime focus of their activities in Hong Kong was management of their commercial links (primarily in general trading) with the Chinese treaty ports.

These merchants of Baghdadi origin can be characterized as international family networks, with intermarriages almost as import as capital for the generation of business.  Their paternalistic leaders assumed responsibility for organizing Jewish community life wherever they settled.  In Hong Kong, this resulted in the establishment of a Jewish cemetery in 1858, and the construction of Hong Kong’s first and only synagogue building, Ohel Leah, in 1901-02.  As Jewish community leaders, they also donated both funds and land to the Jewish community in the form of a trust (dated April 13, 1903), which remains today a prime support for the maintenance of Jewish community property and religious activities.

While some European Jews, primarily from France, also settled in Hong Kong and established new specialty businesses such as retailing, the core of the community remained Baghdadi.  Even as late as 1925, when the community’s first cantor was imported from Baghdad, the primarily language of the majority of the community was still Arabic.

Estimating the size of this community in its earlier stages is problematical because of the lack of adequate internal records.  We know the names of the leading families–Sassoon, Kadoorie, Somech, Sopher, Gubbay, and others; but we do not know the numbers of relatives and family retainers who formed the backbone of their business infrastructure.  While a 1914 publication describes Ohel Leah Synagogue as having “accommodation for about 500 persons,” a 1933 publication states the community consisted of between fifty and seventy-five families, and a 1936 publication puts the Jewish population at around one hundred persons.

In both 1937 and the immediate post-World War II period, influxes of Jewish refugees from the China mainland, primarily from Shanghai, placed a strain on the resources of the local Hong Kong Community.  However, these were transient phenomena, and most of these refugees eventually moved on to such places a North America, Australia, and Israel within a relatively short time.

Economic Activities
Very little work has been done on specifically Jewish economic activities in Hong Kong.  Of the early Baghdadi merchant houses, only the Sassoons seem to have been the subject of focused published study.  Lord Kadoorie’s anecdotal memoir dated 1979 provides some personalized insights to the nature of Jewish commercial activities on the China coast and their familial links within the rubric of the British Empire during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  However, that these commercial pioneers helped build Hong Kong’s basic economic infrastructure is evinced by their part in establishing the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation and their continuous membership on its board of directors during its early years.

The immense contribution of the Kadoorie family to the post-World War II economic success story of Hong Kong is documented in various publications.  Their business activities concentrated in Hong Kong & Shanghai Hotels Ltd. (i.e., the Peninsula Group), China Light and Power Company (which is a major investor in the Daya Bay nuclear power facility), the Peak Tram Company, and others.  Their many philanthropic activities have been geared primarily to bringing economic “self-help” education to the local Hong Kong Chinese population.  In addition to the world-famous Kadoorie Agricultural Aid Association Experimental and Extension Farm in Hong Kong, the Kadoories established schools and hospitals in Hong Kong, China, India, Nepal, and the Middle East.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, local Baghdadi mercantile activities can be seen as part of an international network of family and ethnic ties that placed itself within different cultural environments, maintained a degree of cultural isolation and focused its commercial efforts on “niche” activities not readily accessible to the people of its various cultural environments….  However, because of increasing links with Hong Kong’s governing British bureaucracy, and positive responses to the challenges of Hong Kong’s changing regional economic role, local established Hewish economic activity gradually became part and parcel of the basic economic infrastructure of Hong Kong itself as a modern manufacturing and financial center.

The expansion of China trade after the signing of the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué, in which China and the United States announced their intention to work toward normalization of diplomatic relations, led to a large influx of American investment and businessmen.  Hong Kong’s population began to include Jews involved in a much wider range of economic activities, as shown in the 1989 survey referred to above.  Specifically, among the respondents, 24 percent stated they were involved in trading or retailing; 23 percent in service industries, for example, banking, finance, transportation, and insurance; 18 percent in various professions, such as law, education, medicine, and art; 14 percent in manufacturing; and 2 percent in government.  Furthermore, 62.5 percent of the female respondents indicated being engaged in business or professional activities.  Of those directly involved with China, 73.6 percent began that involvement after the Shanghai Communiqué was signed.”

Present Day
It was the post-World War II boom in Asian trade, and the opening of the China trade in particular, that led to a dramatic increase in Hong Kong’s Jewish population, as well as fundamental changes in the demographic and religious character of the community.  In 1989, there were 384 voting members of Ohel Leah Synagogue/Jewish Recreation Club of Hong Kong, with some 80 children from these families registered in the community’s various educational and social programs.  A 1989 questionnaire-survey of this membership, which achieved a 39 percent return, revealed a profile of nationality groupings as follows:  39 percent American, 27 percent British, 17 percent Israeli, and 17 percent other.  Of these respondents, 71 percent indicated Ashkenazi identification.

This demographic change was reflected in Ohel Leah services, which had begun to follow the Ashkenazi form.  Also in 1989, a small number of Syrian Jews established their own separate minyan (quorum for prayer services) and imported their own rabbi, and the Lubavitch Hasidic movement established a Chabad House and picked up a small following.  In that same year, the United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong, the first organized Reform-Liberal group, was founded. 

A recent (2002) estimate put the Jewish population of Hong Kong at around 6,000.  There are four established congregations:  the (Orthodox) Ohel Leah Synagogue, the Lubavitch Chabad, the (Reform/Liberal) United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong, and Shuva Israel.  The new Jewish Community Centre (JCC) that opened in 1995 holds recreational facilities, a kosher restaurant, and a professionally managed Judaica Library.  It is the leading venue of Jewish activities in this city of nearly seven million population, mostly Chinese.  There are two Jewish schools:  Carmel Day School for children up to 8 years old, and Ezekiel Abraham School for older children.  The JCC is also home to the Jewish Historical Society of Hong Kong, which established Hong Kong’s Judaica Library, and has published books & articles relevant to Sino-Judaic studies.

Some Historical Notes

  1. Ohel Leah Synagogue, originally built in a Sephardic-colonial style by Sir Jacob Sassoon in 1901-1902, was restored and renovated in 1998.  Its Aron ha Kodesh contains many Torah scrolls with Sephardic style encasings.  Some of them were found on Cat Street, Hong Kong’s famous thieves’ market, in 1974, and are believed to have originated in the former and ancient Jewish community of Kaifeng in Henan Province, China.
  1. The Hong Kong Jewish Cemetery was established by a small government land grant in 1858.  Located in Happy Valley on Hong Kong Island, this land grant was expanded in 1904 by Sir Mathew Nathan (1862-1939), who served from 1904 to 1907 as Hong Kong’s only Jewish governor.  Sir Mathew also served the community as Honorary President of Ohel Leah Synagogue while resident in Hong Kong.  The main thoroughfare in Hong Kong’s Kowloon peninsula is called Nathan Road in his honor.
  1. The most prominent Jew from Hong Kong is Lord Lawrence Kadoorie (1899-1993), who is recognized as the driving force behind Hong Kong’s phenomenal economic growth following World War II.  Known as a visionary businessman, investor, hotelier, and entrepreneur, he was also recognized for his extensive philanthropic activities.  He was the first person born in Hong Kong to be named to the British House of Lords, being honored with a CBE and named Baron Kadoorie of Kowloon and Westminster in 1981.  He also received the Chev. Leg. Hon. from the French Government. 

[Excerpted, with permission, from “Environmental Interactions of the Jews of Hong Kong,” by Dennis A. Leventhal, in The Jews of China, Vol. I: Historical and Comparative Perspectives, edited by Jonathan Goldstein (M. E. Sharpe, 1999), pp. 171-186.  Updated and revised in 2009.]